In anticipation of the official dedication ceremony of a garden I recently designed for the Benedictine Sisters of Mt Angel, I spent a couple of hours with the wonderful crew of GardenTime – a local garden TV show here in the Pacific NW, filming a snippet about the newly installed garden. Of course, being calm and collected in front of a camera is hard when you’re me, who likes to gesture, point, and talk with my entire body. In short, I didn’t feel I really got to say everything I needed to say to explain my reasoning behind this project, nor did I have time for some relevant details. So, I figured I would document it all here, instead. When the segment airs in a couple of weeks, I will post it as I also do a report on the dedication ceremony. Hopefully it will all make more sense to you then.
“We have this big tree, and we want a seating area somewhere near it. Can you help us?“, said a cheery voice on the phone. This was Sister Jane, who were to be my point person on the job, and with whom I hit it off famously. Turns out, she wasn’t kidding. The first thing you see when turning into the Monastery parking lot is this 130′ Sequoia dominating the landscape, and dwarfing everything else around it. It was planted by one of the very first Sisters in 1893. She found a seedling by the train tracks, and transplanted it. Not knowing what it was, she gave it a prime spot a little too close to the building, as time would eventually show. “This is the spiritual center of the Monastery”, said Sister Jane. I could feel it. Standing underneath that magnificent canopy made my toes tingle – it was indeed powerful!
As it happened, there were a few more details that needed to be addressed when placing that “seating area”. The lawn to the north of the Sequoia was also home to an old bronze bell and a flagpole, which were to remain. I learned that the Sisters provide “spiritual walks” to the community, and that they also had a peace pole that needed to be placed. This garden, with the peace pole, was supposed to be an essential part of those walks.
As a result of that first visit, I wanted to put the peace pole underneath the tree. The trunk of the Sequoia was about 13′ in diameter, and had a bit of a divot in the perfect location. To my mind, that natural “alcove” would be the perfect place to house the peace pole. To get to it, there would be a board walk of sorts, floated above the uneven ground of the massive tree roots, for easy access for aging Sisters and their spiritual companions. I drew up plans with the board walk widening around the peace pole, showing a built-in seat right underneath the massive crown of the Sequoia. In that scenario, the peace pole would have been somewhat askew, but the seating area itself would have been right on axis with the bell and the flag pole “outside” on the lawn. I say “outside”, because standing under the tree inspires the same awe as looking up into a cathedral spire – it transports you into a vortex of the mysteries of the universe – a completely different world.
In sorting out the more profane spatial organization outside of the sacred Sequoia, I was inspired by the idea of the spiritual walks. Since the beginning of time, labyrinths have symbolized a journey, a search for the meaning of life. Carefully inlaid mosaic labyrinths have adorned the floors of any cathedral with self respect, as a physical manifestation of our quest for the sacred, and for eternal answers. Of course, the roughly pie-shaped patch of lawn I had at my disposal didn’t quite have room for a labyrinth, nor was it really part of the scope of the project. (Besides, the Monastery already have a labyrinth, I later learned.) I moved on… Instead, I focused on using axes to tie the randomly placed elements that needed to be incorporated into the design. Obviously, the giant Sequoia provided me with the sacred, vertical axis – the spiritual, heavenly connection. Looking up at this massive tree, the baffled question I had blurted out when I first saw it still remained; “How the hell do you compete with something that BIG???”
Well, I went big, too. The pathways are 6′ across. Two main axes going north/south and east/west intersect right between the bell and the flagpole. In addition to the two main paths, there is a circular path connecting them, symbolizing the cosmos and the cyclical progression of time. As I was working on the layout of the paths, I realized what was happening… I was drawing a Benedictine cross! And there it was – the Sisters loved it! Outside of the circular path, are four 12′ x 40′ bermed beds, to be planted with mostly shrubs (for ease of care). It’s funny – after all the elements were in place, and the proportions looked right – looking at the plan, the size of the footprint of the garden is almost identical to that of the tree. I guess that’s what it took to not get completely lost in its shadow. After considering several other material options for the paths, we went for the beautiful simplicity of a gravel lawn. You can read more about that here, at Joy Creek’s blog. It’s a fabulous alternative, and works like a charm!
In the end, the Sisters decided against building the boardwalk. They just couldn’t justify the expense, not knowing how long they would remain at the Monastery. I guess this caution makes sense – their calling isn’t exactly popular with the younger generations, and they are going the way of the Shakers. (Hadn’t really thought of that conundrum before.) No matter. In the revised version, the Benedictine pathways remained. Instead of housing the peace pole, the drooping branches of the Sequoia now provides a backdrop to it. Where is the seating, you wonder? The Sisters restored a bench that had meaning to them, and its backrest fits perfectly against the old bell. From there, one looks straight at the peace pole against the towering Sequoia, and can meditate on its life-affirming message; May there be Peace on Earth.
Crossroads are important – the physical ones as well as the existential. We all come to them in the course of our lives. As a Swede, I feel like I can say that living in American society is damn hard. There are non-existent social safety nets, and people are constantly faced with the trauma of devastatingly hard choices like “Do I pay for surgery, or keep my home?” As part of these spiritual walks, the Sisters offer compassion, lend an ear, and give kindness to fellow humans in all kinds of despair and states of sorrow. Coming from a rather heathen background with very little tolerance for organized religions and their various dogmas, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the very important role they fill, in American society. I’ve always been a free-spirited being, consistently shying away from labels of one sort or another. I wondered why on earth they picked me to do this for them, but I’m so glad they did. I’m a spiritually richer person for having had the privilege to work with them.
So, what about the plants? The spiritual walks occur year round, so I decided I wanted to appeal to as many senses as possible. My rules were that there had to be something in flower at all times, something fragrant at all times, and flowers, fruits and berries to bring in insects and birds, and for additional year round interest. The Nuns had some rules too. Maintenance would be done by staff, but due to their many other duties, maintenance needs had to be minimal.
Working within the confines of Catholicism was so much fun! It’s a veritable treasure trove of symbols, liturgical traditions, and meanings. Purple is a hugely important color around Lent and Advent. White, red, green, black, rose, and gold are also prevalent. Blue is the color of the Madonna. I confess I didn’t manage to time the flowering times with the exact time of their importance. Instead, I chose plants that will move and change with the seasons. What will be purple, white, peachy rose, green, and black in summer, will change to golden yellow, orange, red, green and black in winter. Of course, there are lots of roses included, including the fabulous wing-thorn rose (Rosa pteracantha), Yuletide Camellia, various dogwoods with red/orange/yellow branches, various Mahonias, a Grevillea, Osmanthus ‘San José, Fatsia ‘Spiderweb’, Garrya elliptica, Daphne, Callicarpa dichotoma, Salix ‘Hakuro Nishiki’, Lespedeza thunbergii, various Hebes and hardy Fuchsias, Myrtis communis, Cupressus ‘Tiny Towers’, Miscanthus purpurescens, etc. Of course there are some lilies – their symbolic weight was just too great to ignore. There are also some smaller grasses, Hellebores, purple Epimediums, white and peach Diascias, and purple Asters. The four center quadrants are planted with Black Scallop Ajuga with miniature blue-eyed tulips, butter yellow Hawera narcissi, and white Fritillarias emerging in spring. Will write a separate post on the plants at a different time as they fill in a little. Right now, many are rather small, and don’t really convey what they will eventually do. So, stand by on that one, please!